Morning in Maridi – a large village an hour’s flight west of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The sun is already radiating forcefully on to anything that it can lay its rays of heat on, but compared to Juba, everything in Maridi, apart from the orange dirt in the road, seems lush and green. You cannot drift too far off to the side of the road without finding that you are lost in fields of sorghum or sugar canes and large fruit trees with banana and papaya.
Oliver Eluzai, a man with a humble demeanour, picks me up on his motorbike and heads off towards our destination. Uniformed children scurry along the roadside carrying little wooden stools, together with some books tied together with a string. They veer off the main road on to the narrow, winding paths that lead them to their schools. At the other end of town, Oliver and I reach Maridi 1 Primary School and Butala Secondary School.
Headmaster, Joseph Mabuk, welcomes us and invites us to into the yard where monumental mango trees tower over the school grounds as Joseph addresses a crowd of around 800 children.
Increasing girls’ access to quality education
To be precise, 819 pupils are enrolled in the two schools in 2017. A few years back this number was around 600.
The reason for the increase of pupils is GESS (Girls’ Education South Sudan) – a six year programme, which started in April 2013, with the aim of transforming a generation of South Sudanese girls by increasing their access to quality education.
Oliver Eluzai is the GESS County Liaison Officer of Maridi County. He is responsible for the implementation of activities that tackle financial, cultural and quality barriers that are hindrances to the education of girls.
Oliver’s job has been to ensure that the 56 schools, the teachers and the female students in his county are enrolled in the GESS programme.
Education of girls can change things for the better in South Sudan
Many teachers are poorly educated and do not get sufficient support from their communities, who may not fully appreciate the purpose of education.
In order to change this, Oliver and his fellow education officers in the other 9 counties of Maridi State establish and train school management committees, train head teachers how to set development plans and budgets for their schools, and teach them how to write proposal budgets in order to apply for GESS funds.
A bunch on a bench
The Butala Secondary School is at the far end of the school grounds. Built to last these buildings have stood here since 1963. The tall walls of the immense classrooms are covered with crude, but fascinating scribbles that compete with the teacher’s delicately written assignments on the blackboard.
Pupils squeeze together on benches. Here and there students sit with their school books in their laps on little stools or on the window sill.
Either the classrooms were never properly equipped or termites reduced the furniture to dust ages ago. The desks that we see have been purchased recently with money from capitation grants.
GESS Capitation Grants are funds made available to all not-for-profit schools (government, community and faith-based schools) to remove registration fees, help supplement running costs and improve the learning environment.
The Butala Secondary School has used most of the money from the Capitation Grants to invest in desks with benches for the older students.
The next grant will be used to buy more desks, also to the smaller age groups, so that they won’t have to carry their own wooden stools to school.
Educated women can bring about peace
Of course, both girls and boys will benefit from properly maintained schools and increased educational quality, but especially the potential of educating girls is something that Oliver acknowledges.
'Education of girls can change things for the better in South Sudan,' Oliver claims and points out why he wants to see more girls in school. 'Women care more than men do. They are good negotiators and problem solvers, whereas men often escalate problems and even wage war. As I see it,' Oliver continues, 'it has greater worth to educate women than men.'
Tackling cultural and gender-specific barriers with cash
Forced marriage and early pregnancies are some of the biggest barriers girls face in accessing education. Families may not be able to pay for their daughter’s education and may think that the girl’s dowry in marriage is more important. Another challenge is menstruation. During her period, a girl might spend several days at home if she can’t afford sanitary materials.
A key component of the GESS programme is to encourage enrolment and retention of girls by providing Cash Transfers to girls in education.
Any girl in the year groups of Primary 5-8 and Senior 1-4 is eligible to receive a Cash Transfer. Once it is verified that she is enrolled in and regularly attending school the Cash Transfer is paid directly into the hands of the girl at her school. 2,408 girls in Maridi State alone have received Cash Transfers in 2017.
These cash grants contribute to poverty reduction in the family and the community, but the main goal is to make it possible for girls to buy the things they need in order to attend school.
Chandia Gloria, a researcher from one of the implementing partners of GESS, Charlie Goldsmith Associates, goes on field surveys to ask the girls and the schools how they spend the money that they have received from GESS. 'Although it is too dangerous to use the roads in some parts of South Sudan we need to go into the field to see how the capitation grants and the cash transfers benefit the recipients,' Gloria says. 'Fortunately, you can fly to many of the counties we operate in, but flying doesn’t necessarily make you feel safe. I prefer flying with MAF, because they take the safety of their passengers seriously.'
Fatherless girls with high hopes
In the shade of the Maridi school’s mango trees a couple of women are preparing lunch for the children who have some money to spare. ‘Mandasas’ of sorghum or maize are meticulously folded and gently lowered into a cauldron of boiling oil.
Selling food to passers-by is also how Angelina Albert’s mother tries to make a living. In 2015 Angelina’s family moved to a refugee camp in Arua, Uganda. Here, her father fell sick and died, leaving her mother with six children to look after.
Angelina heard about the GESS project and managed to go back to Maridi to live with her grandmother. After having lost some years at school, Angelina is now in primary 8 at the age of 17. With the money from GESS she has paid her school fees and has bought a school uniform, a pair of long, white socks, school books and soap. She is happy that she can go to school and hopes that one day she will be an accountant.
Another girl, eleven-year-old Sekina Francis, is in Primary 7. Her father was a government soldier and shot by rebels, when she was three years old. Her mother decided to go to Juba to work, and Sekina, her brother and two sisters were left in the care of her grandmother in Maridi. Since their mother has not been able to send money to her children, they all get by with the little food her grandmother manages to sell at the market. All four children are in school, yet Sekina is the only one old enough to receive a cash grant from GESS. With the money, Sekina payed her school fee, she bought a uniform, socks, shoes and excersise books. When asked what she would do if the support from GESS suddenly stopped, Sekina replied: 'I will continue!'
'Educating women is important,' Sekina claims. 'They should have the same type of jobs as men and hold government positions!'
Even though she enjoys social studies, she is not aspiring to go into politics. 'I would rather be a pilot,' Sekina says boldly, 'because this is not something that is common for girls.'